Each election cycle brings new megadonors. In 2020, on the Democratic side, it was billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who spent $1.1 billion on his own presidential campaign and another $150 million supporting Democratic candidates. For Republicans that year, it was billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who registered $218 million in federal donations. But Adelson is dead and Bloomberg has largely exited the arena.
This year, a new crop of industrialists, financiers, and tech elites, each with excessive fortunes, came ready to influence the midterms’ outcome.
Of the top 10 largest individual donors in 2022, eight were Republicans. Among them: hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin; packaging titans Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein; and Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman. The only Democrat other than George Soros was Sam Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old cryptocurrency titan who ponied up $40 million in scattershot fashion for a bunch of Democratic House candidates in primary races. He claimed to be elevating a class of politicians who would adhere to an ideology of “sane governance” and “pandemic preparedness.” But more than a quarter of the money went to one candidate, Oregon’s Carrick Flynn, who lost his primary—even after Nancy Pelosi’s super PAC threw in its own money in support, in an attempt to make nice with the Bankman-Fried money machine. Other candidates he backed, like North Carolina’s Valerie Foushee, triumphed in the primary. But then, a handful of weeks before Election Day, Bankman-Fried announced that he had scratched that itch and was done with election spending altogether, leaving his remaining candidates to fend for themselves.
Refracted across the political divide was Peter Thiel. Thiel, too, is a tech investor with billions of dollars. He spent over $30 million in two of the most important, winnable seats for Republicans, on behalf of Senate candidates who espoused his Trumpist political theory, and who often had ties to the tech world themselves. In Ohio, with J.D. Vance, and in Arizona, with Blake Masters, Thiel has pumped big money into races the GOP desperately needs to win to retake the Senate. Thiel, too, suggested that he might be done with political spending after the primaries, but the party was able to talk him into pitching more cash into the general election. Mitch McConnell has put resources into these candidates as well, but they have been, well, imperfect, their loyalties seemingly more aligned with Thiel and Trump than the Republican Party.
Does that not perfectly encapsulate the two parties? One expensive, meandering, and ineffectual, the other expensive, calculating, and radical. Thiel’s candidates, in part because they’re so extreme, may well lose. Depending on how election night goes, we could see failed kingmakers on both sides.